Just a couple of research related things that I thought blog readers might find interesting.
First – I had a piece in Crikey today using Leximancer to crunch election coverage. The piece runs exactly parallel with some research I’m currently doing on election coverage in regional areas. It’s here (though paywalled, unfortunately.)
Second – I got asked to write a piece about Kevin Rudd for the UK journal celebrity studies. This needed to be 1500 words including references – it’s a “forum” piece rather than a longer, formal paper – a bit of a hybrid between academic and op-ed work. I won’t tell you the hilarious story involving me writing an 8000 word version of this that now needs another home. I’ll tell you the punchline, though: I’m an idiot.
Anyway, it’s a nice length to chuck on the blog. Below the fold, I reproduce a final “author copy”, just in case you’re interested. It brings together some strands from political communication studies, journalism and celebrity studies to add something (I hope) to the growing pile of words written about the man.
Enjoy, feedback welcome, etc.
Sunrise to sunset: Kevin Rudd as celebrity in Australia’s post-broadcast democracy.
Kevin Rudd was a ‘fanatical’ media networker from very early on in his political career (Latham, 2005: 249) – given his lack of support within his own Party, in a sense he had no choice. His rise from backbencher, to shadow minister, to Australian Labor Party (ALP) leader and Prime Minister coincided with his most important sustained engagement with celebrity media – five years from 2001 to 2006 as the ALP’s representative on ‘The Big Guns of Politics’ segment on Australian television network Seven’s Sunrise program. Seven’s breakfast show successfully challenged the ratings dominance of the Nine Network by adopting an informal, irreverent tone, and because its hosts (Melissa Doyle and David Koch) present as ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’ people ‘like us’, by contrast with the luminaries of Nine’s well-established star system. (Harrington, 2010) The regular segment where Rudd squared off against affable Liberal Party parliamentarian Joe Hockey sat well alongside the show’s other preoccupations – celebrity topics and ‘kitchen table’ concerns. It was relaxed, light in its tone, and deliberately avoided the arid partisanship of political debate in elite media. Through their appearances on the program, the two politicians became ‘intimate strangers’ who appeared in and around the morning routines of ‘average Australians, people who were not normally engaged by the high-brow political analysis of the Canberra press gallery’ (Jackman 2008, p. 32) The celebrity appeal they developed helped Sunrise: they were eventually moved to the highest-rating part of the highest-rating day in the show’s weekly schedule (Marr 2010: 50). Rudd and Hockey came to notice the program’s ‘eclectic appeal’: far way from their electorates they would be ‘greeted fondly as mates, rather than politicians’. (Jackman 2008, p. 32) Rudd – the Mandarin-speaking, millionaire, cosmopolitan ex-diplomat – came to be ‘perceived as ‘‘ordinary’’, rather than just ‘‘another boring politician’.’ (Harrington, 2009: 178)
His engagement with Sunrise and other like programs meant that Kevin Rudd’s political rise and fall drew celebrity and celebrity media closer to the central terrain of political struggle and debate in Australia’s ‘post-broadcast democracy’ (Prior, 2006). Rudd engaged strategically with the Australian celebrity industry in making a direct appeal to the Australian people, creating a persona seen as ordinary, trustworthy and familiar to the point of intimacy. His successful election campaign in 2007 foregrounded this persona. But over the course of his first and only term as Prime Minister both his opponents and the ‘elite’ political media (who Rudd had attempted to manage and sideline) combined to cast doubt on its authenticity, to reveal the ‘real Kevin’ behind ‘Kevin ‘07’, and thus to change the public meaning of Rudd’s celebrity. Combined with his political errors, these efforts succeeded in producing a crisis of public faith in Rudd’s leadership. Having been the most popular Prime Minister in the history of Australian opinion polling, in June 2010, Rudd was removed by his own party as unelectable.
Three trends in Australia’s media environment help us to understand Rudd’s dalliance with celebrity culture, and its consequences. First, Australia’s mediated democracy is subject to the post-broadcast dynamic of audience and media fragmentation. The multiplication of information channels and platforms mean that encounters with political information are strongly dependent on the degree to which audience members are inclined to seek them out.) Sally Young finds that Australia has a minority (even niche) ‘elite’, news-seeking audience, and a much larger ‘general’ audience who have switched off serious current affairs content but ‘may not necessarily replace this’ with other forms of political content (2008). Second, Australia’s celebrity industry has expanded into more outlets and channels, and commands far more public attention than politics. Third, Australia’s political communications system parallels other Western examples in exhibiting a dynamic of competition and co-evolution between political advocates and professional journalists in elite media outlets covering national politics. This creates what James Stanyer has called a ‘disdaining dynamic’ between political and press corps as each compete ‘for control of the way messages are presented to the audience’ (2007, p. 7).
All three offer powerful incentives to go beyond official, elite news media outlets and to court a broader constituency. Rudd used celebrity media outlets to reach audiences apart from the ageing, dwindling one attached to elite news outlets , and to issue messages in a way that bypassed their scrutiny. Additionally, Rudd’s intrinsic problem of lacking extensive support or patronage in his own party (Oakes, 2010) was motivation for directly cultivating a broad public following in friendly media outlets.
Rudd’s ‘Kevin 07’-branded election campaign was able to assume that the Nation was comfortably on a first-name basis with the Labor leader. The persona he had burnished on Sunrise augmented his appeal as a change candidate challenging a Government, and a Prime Minister, who had been in power for more than a decade. The echoes of James Bond in the slogan risked ironic self-deprecation – an unusual trait in campaigning politicians. But this simply underlined the message that Rudd was something new in political life, and a familiar face – a mate – who could be trusted with running the country. Throughout the campaign, Rudd continued to engage with celebrity and general media – like FM Radio and comedy talk show Rove – often at the expense of serious outlets. This triggered a late-campaign spat with the host of ‘insider baseball’ talking heads show Insiders, Barrie Cassidy, who accused the Opposition Leader (who had refused to be interviewed on the show during the campaign) of avoiding scrutiny, and forsaking genuine politics for ‘vaudeville’. Rudd’s reply fingered Insiders‘ elitism, and its limited appeal:
Guess what? There’s a whole bunch of people out there who you may be surprised to know don’t watch Insiders but do listen to FM radio. And my job as the alternative prime minister is to communicate with the entire country.’ (Hawthorne, 2007)
Both men had a point. But their conflict reveals the tensions at the heart of celebritising post-broadcast democracies. The dynamics of this shift intensify internal and mutual competitive pressures on politician and journalist alike. In Cassidy’s attack, we can see the beginnings of the journalistic backlash and debunking coverage that would characterise the latter part of Rudd’s tenure as Prime Minister.
Political journalists’ first response to the novel intensity of the new government’s media management was familiar: ‘metacoverage’ highlighting the presence and activity of Rudd’s PR apparatus. But they also attacked the persona at the heart of Rudd’s success, and persistently questioned the authenticity of Rudd’s public face. Journalists began competing with stories purporting to reveal the darker nature of the ‘real Kevin Rudd’, threatening to expose an inauthenticity at his core. In this way, political journalism in Australia approximated the tactics of celebrity media in its “scourging” mode, where it engineers the degradation and descent of existing celebrities. (Rojek, 2001: 80) These attacks hit the mark because they came on top of a series of policy reversals – most notably a scrapped emissions trading scheme – which opened the question of what Rudd stood for. A central theme that emerged was Rudd’s rage: stories pointed to Rudd’s outbursts of temper, directed at colleagues and luckless government employees.
The scourge culminated in an essay, Power Trip, by senior Sydney Morning Herald journalist David Marr, published just before Rudd’s demise, which insisted that Rudd was fundamentally ‘driven by anger’. The ‘real Kevin Rudd’, then, was as far away from ‘Kevin 07’ as could be imagined – Rudd had lied about who he was. This conclusion was still ringing on the 22nd of June 2010 when the ALP responded to intractably bad polling by replacing Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard, who called an election weeks thereafter. Kevin Rudd was gone; Kevin 07 had departed long before, as the meanings of Rudd’s celebrity irrevocably changed.
Administrative failures, political errors and the alienation of his colleagues all played a part in Kevin Rudd’s political demise, but the gradual tarnishing of his political celebrity was also connected closely with his decline in public affections. The questions that arise from his fate go to the very possibility of campaigning and governing in post-broadcast democracies. How can politicians build broad popular support without alienating the seriousness of elite media, who still retain considerable influence? What version of authenticity ought we expect when media fragmentation necessitates a variety of media performances from politicians, and an ever more complex constitution of political celebrity? Can a politician become a celebrity in contemporary media cultures and still pursue difficult, sometimes unpopular reforms? The world will watch the US Presidential elections of 2012 in the hope of receiving clearer answers to these questions.
Harrington, S., 2010. Waking Up With Friends: Breakfast news, Sunrise and the ‘televisual sphere’. Journalism Studies, 11(2), 175.
Harrington, S.M., 2009. Public knowledge beyond journalism : infotainment, satire and Australian television. Thesis. Available at: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/26675/ [Accessed October 14, 2010].
Jackman, C., 2008. Inside Kevin07 : the people, the plan, the prize., Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing.
Marr, D., 2010. Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd, Melbourne: Black Inc.
Oakes, L., 2010. On the record : politics, politicians and power, Sydney: Hachette Australia.
Prior, M., Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rojek, C., 2001. Celebrity, London: Reaktion Books.
Stanyer, J., 2007. Modern Political Communications: Mediated Politics In Uncertain Times, Cambridge: Polity.
Young, S., 2008. The bad news. Inside Story. Available at: http://inside.org.au/the-bad-news/ [Accessed October 19, 2010].